The Joyful Child

By Norman Ravvin

Norman Ravvin is a native of Calgary who has lived in Vancouver and Fredericton and now teaches in Montreal, and so perhaps it is no surprise that his new book is a road novel (perhaps better described as a collection of linked short stories) that logs a lot of travel miles.

The book’s focus is on the relationship between fathers and sons. The central character, Paul, is the divorced father of Nick, a sweet child filled with a sense of wonder at the world. Paul, we learn, was abandoned by his own father as a child and later left the symbolic inheritance of a fleet of vintage automobiles. Shortly after receiving this windfall his house in Toronto burns down, leaving him to spend much of the rest of the book shuttling about with Nick – from living for a while on the west coast to chasing around America after a distant cousin. As well as representing Paul’s rootlessness (he even dreams about cars), the road also becomes an asphalt ribbon of fate heading for various real and metaphorical smash-ups.

Of course the big car wreck is just the inevitability of getting older and having to watch things fall apart. Paul has a sense that his “inheritance consists of things that suddenly slip away, and he swears he will end this pattern when it comes to his son.” It is a tragic delusion, since the pattern is life itself. Paul wants Nick to hold on to his innocence forever, but “everything – everything – conspires against this.”

Such a conclusion could be banal, especially in a book dealing with such a time-honoured theme, but Ravvin makes it work with a pared-down style that has an honest feel for modern lives of quiet desperation and a real facility for capturing the natural world in just a few small words. Some of the dialogue, however, comes across as unnatural, Nick remains a generic figure, and the narrator, a vague, “childless loner” who has an ambiguous relationship with Paul, never engages with the reader.

The Joyful Child is an intimate family portrait where both the family and the portrait are in fragments. Wearing its heart on its sleeve, it offers up fiction in a confessional mode, with all the occasional emotional rawness and expressive awkwardness that implies.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, June 2011.

%d bloggers like this: